Traction for transit?

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As support grows, Hamilton County will be asked whether it approves of expansion of mass transit options

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By Robert Herrington and Dan Domsic

The community landscape is changing through new infrastructure, businesses, real estate and construction, but could mass transit further evolve Hamilton County? In the coming months, the discussion of a dramatic expansion of mass transit in Central Indiana will become more prevalent as community leaders and citizens support the idea.

A town that has seen explosive growth in the past and continues to work on infrastructure, Fishers stands poised for a push by groups for such an expansion.

“I’m supportive as long as the economics work in the sense that it’s not going to entirely pay for itself,” David George, Fishers town councilor, said.

When considering mass transit, the “entire concept,” including resulting economic activity have to be considered, he said.

“We (the town council) just like to make sure that every dollar used is going to be a dollar that’s going to get a dollar return,” George said.

Through the Indy Connect Now campaign, members of the Indiana General Assembly are urged to authorize a referendum that would allow a vote by Marion and Hamilton County residents on whether to fund the enhanced mass transit system. Indy Connect Now Executive Director Ron Gifford said an attempt to pass legislation did not succeed last year but he was hopeful this general assembly would be different.

“Rep. Jerry Torr (R-Carmel) is committed to passing the bill with the support of a bipartisan group,” he said. “We expect several other folks will sponsor the bill in January.”

George said local communities can approach the legislature and ask for the ability to have control over or debate various issues, including transit.

“I think it’s always good for the locals to go with a strong stance and say to the legislature, ‘we’re capable to tackle this issue, and we’d like tackle it through a referendum,’” George said.

To fund the Indy Connect plan, a voter referendum is needed to approve local funding in both counties. If approved by the general assembly, Gifford said a special election could occur this fall or during the 2014 general election. A petition is available online at www.indyconnectnow.com. It will be shared with state lawmakers who are likely to take up the issue during the new legislative session.

Indy Connect Now and other organizations have met with the Fishers Town Council in the past, discussing the road map to mass transit during at least one work session.

Gifford said expansion of the transit system would begin in 2014, with completion of the entire plan expected by 2022. He said the benefits of mass transit included connecting people to new job opportunities and healthcare facilities, mitigating traffic congestion and improving the environment (i.e. air quality) with electric and hybrid electric vehicles.

What forms of transit and where new stops are established could impact how Fishers zones different areas of the municipality, according to George.

George said the big negative with the opportunity for mass transit was the sheer dollar amount it would take to make a mass transit plan possible.

He affirmed that the council was unlikely to take a strong stance on mass transit before solid numbers were presented.

But to make money, money has to be spent.

After taking multiple trips to areas impacted by mass transit, including to Charlotte, N.C., George likens a rail line to diverting a river to irrigate land. It spills life back into areas that previously were wilting in the elements. In his example, areas occupied by dilapidated factories and other buildings started being revitalized around rail.

According to Gifford, an investment in mass transit could lead to real estate development featuring new businesses, shops and apartments that open along the new rapid transit lines throughout the county. Within five years of building a new 10-mile light-rail line in Charlotte, new development brought in $1.5 billion for a city smaller than Indianapolis.

George said it’s not possible for Fishers to put the issue on any ballot before the state legislature acts.

There’s a need for more transportation when it comes to economic development, according to Scott Faultless, town councilor.

He said economic development comes in the form of transit jobs, as well as the development that springs up around transit stations.

Faultless said more details are needed before the issue reaches the voters.

“The general assembly should give voters the right to decide if they want this as an amenity,”  Faultless said.

The Plan

Phase I calls for five rapid transit lines from downtown Indianapolis to Noblesville and Westfield, with modern transit vehicles creating faster connections along key routes, as well as six express bus routes to provide quick access between major commercial centers. These lines are expected to be installed between 2017 and 2020. In addition to more bus routes, the Indy Connect plan will help decrease wait times at transit stops from an average of 30 minutes to 10 minutes on all the major lines. One rail line from Union Station in downtown Indianapolis to Noblesville will be in service by 2021. Indy Connect Now Executive Director Ron Gifford said these expanded transportation options would help retain and attract talented employees to Central Indiana. The Phase I project comes with a $1.3 billion price tag but Gifford said almost half of that would come from federal grants. “We think we are really well positioned there,” he said.

By the numbers

2 – Indy Connect Now Phase I involves two counties – Hamilton and Marion. It will double the bus service in Marion County and adds service in Hamilton County. It also provides express bus service between the two counties.

1.3B – Funding for mass transit is $1.3 billion. In comparison, the four recent or planned infrastructure projects on U.S. 31, Ind. 37, I-465 and I-69 have a $1.89 billion price tag.

0.3 – Indy Connect Now is asking the state legislator to authorize flexible use of county economic development income tax up to 0.3 percent to create a dedicated transit funding stream. This tax would only apply if a local referendum is approved and the county opts into the agreement.

89 – Indianapolis is the 12th largest city in the country with a bus system that ranks 89th in the nation.

274,569 – Hamilton County’s population in 2010. The projected population is 359,035 in 2020; 435,321 in 2030 and 498,139 in 2040.

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